We asked thoughtful locals why the 1970s left such a lasting imprint on Austin. We received many provocative answers, which we’ll share here first.
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No. 2: Forrest Preece, native Austinite and retired advertising executive.
One weekend in 1972, a friend from Houston came up to visit. On Saturday, we ate breakfast at Cisco’s and we were driving back to my house. I had stopped at a light on West 45th when my pal laughingly said, “Austin is such a hippie town.” Two heartbeats later a rusty VW bug pulled up on our left. I glanced over and saw that both guys in it had hair down their backs. The fellow riding shotgun turned, checked us out, decided that we were cool, then with surgical precision lifted a roach clip to his lips and took a hit. That moment was so perfect, my buddy and I could only stare at each other, speechless.
Many of the events that happened in the 1970s did forge the way for Austin as we know it. Like the incident at that stop light, the counterculture that had been brewing here in the previous decade turned to the establishment, both sides took a look at each other, and decided that, yeah, they could co-exist.
You don’t have to go further than the Armadillo World Headquarters, which perfectly spanned the decade, to have a metaphor for the time. In that cavernous auditorium, software programmers, businesspeople, and anti-establishment types mingled in the dark, listened to musicians like B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, and Marcia Ball and left feeling good about life and each other.
Then there were the political touchstones — in 1971, Jeff Friedman, a long-haired lawyer and anti-Vietnam War activist, and Berl Handcox, an African-American IBM executive, gained seats on the City Council, which to that point had almost exclusively been a conservative white men’s preserve. In 1975, Friedman was elected mayor and John Treviño became the first Hispanic council member.
One result of these events was the “gentlemen’s agreement” that two seats on the council would be reserved for an African-American and a Hispanic. In 1977 Friedman was succeeded as mayor by (then) Carole McClellan, another breakthrough.
The rise of the technology industry here in the 1970s also had a lot to do with forging our city’s cultural identity. To belabor the obvious, until then the Austin economic world had been insular, dominated by the state government, UT, and a few homegrown businesses. Suddenly, people were moving here from all over the country to work for big firms like IBM and startups with international scope like MRI Systems Corporation. These new residents brought fresh ways of looking at the world and heated up the cultural stew.
Yes, in the 1970s, the times were changing and many of those events laid a foundation for today’s Austin.